The spreading of city improvement districts (CIDs) and connected forms of public–private partnership as an international model of urban renewal has been linked to the rise of ‘urban entrepreneurialism’ and the neoliberalization of policies and practices, at a time when competition between cities in the global economy has never been greater. The aim of this article is to explore the transfer and adaptation of the CID model in two cities of the South, Johannesburg and Cape Town. Arguing that CIDs are an example of the local embeddedness of neoliberalism, we highlight the role of the private sector in importing and adapting CIDs in South Africa, and point out the rise of techno‐politicians in CID management. Paying particular attention to discourses, we analyse the way images of decaying urban centres were used to legitimate the adoption of such schemes. The subsequent transformation of the model also enables us to explore the specificity of the adoption of this international best practice model in South Africa and its further circulation at the Southern African level. We conclude that while CIDs in South Africa raise familiar North American issues regarding the private management of public spaces, they also question the very nature of the African city model proposed and envisioned locally.